“When Lucien asked me years ago to be his successor, it was a great honor, that he believed in me enough to take on his family’s history and legacy for years to come. Keeping Crown Hill Farm operating is a huge responsibility, but one I would never turn down,” Alex Bergstrom said. This legacy is a farm Lucien Gunderman’s grandparents, Damien and Zephirine Mochettaz, purchased in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range in 1920 and stewarded through the depression.
Promoting succession planning is important to Gunderman: “You need to be proactive in planning, it is a must for anyone holding any amount of land or a business entity. When you have a heart attack, or get hit by a bus, that’s not the time to think about setting up a trust.”
Alex helps Lucien keep their diverse operation going through hard work – they have a beef and sheep operation, along with sustainable timber management, a thriving stove business and some rental properties.
Without an heir, Lucien needed to be creative in his approach to finding a successor. “Alex’s Dad and I have been best friends since high school, and Alex has helped out at the farm since he was 12. When he said he wanted to work on the farm as long as possible, it was an easy choice. We put a trust together with our attorney.”
Finding a farm business successor was just one step in planning for the future of the farm. Lucien and his mother decided they wanted to establish a working land conservation easement to protect their land in perpetuity in 2002. They worked with their local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), because “local farmers sit on the board and they understood the goals and challenges we face as farmers.”
In a working land conservation easement, the landowner is paid or gets a tax break in exchange for giving up some of their development rights. According to Larry Ojua, Executive Director of Yamhill SWCD, “conservation easements are a voluntary tool that can be a useful part of succession planning. Many farmers in our area, like Lucien, are seeking opportunities to protect their land and continue farming long-term.”
Lucien said, “I remember when we finalized the conservation easement on our farm, friends said, ‘are you crazy, do you know what that property would be worth if it was subdivided?’ Our response is, and has always been, money isn’t everything, they don’t make land any more, and we wanted to protect the legacy of the natural open space, and resources that are here. Something that more people should know is that farmers and ranchers are very protective of the land and managing the resources, their livelihood depends on it.”
But succession planning is never really over. The farm’s succession challenges continued when Lucien’s mother passed in 2012. Lucien was faced with a huge tax bill totaling $325,000, due in 9 months. Lucien reached out to his attorney, a key player in helping set up his conservation easement and trust for Alex. A unique state law helped, the Oregon Natural Resources Tax Credit reduces estate taxes on farm, ranch, and forest assets that pass to family members. This tax credit brought Lucien’s taxes down to $214,000. Lucien stretched every dollar and a loan option to pay the taxes and keep the farm safe.
And for Alex, “It’s not an easy life but working the farm and taking care of the property is a great joy in my life and something I look forward to everyday. I could never imagine myself going any other direction than working the land as my Dad and Lucien have taught me.”